The Community Rights Movement in New England is grieving the loss of a water protector. Gail Mills of Nottingham, N.H., passed away this month, having paid forward a legacy of community activism that inspired local activists across the country.
Townspeople in Nottingham faced their Goliath in the mid-2000’s when USA Springs, LLC management decided to extract and bottle water from a local aquifer, to sell overseas in Italy. Gail and her husband, Chris, encouraged the community to stand their ground and do everything within their power to prevent permits from being issued by the state. What they learned through infuriating experience was that the state permitting process actually legalized the exploitation of water and the destruction of natural ecosystems when there is profit to be made. After years of losing the battle with state permitting agencies, Gail supported a new path of action.
In 2008, Nottingham became the second town in the state to adopt a water protection rights-based ordinance to make it illegal to commercially extract water for the purpose of bottling and selling it beyond the boundaries of the town. Gail was a founding member of the Nottingham Water Alliance (NWA) which was formed to propose the local initiative at town meeting. After months of education, organizing, and drafting their Water Rights law, USA Springs began to take the NWA seriously.
“I remember Gail telling me a story about how armed men dressed in black were posted across the street from her home as a means to intimidate her into backing down from the local initiative” says Michelle Sanborn of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). (The NWA partnered with CELDF for assistance with education, organizing, and legal support throughout their over-a-decade-long effort to defeat the USA Springs, LLC project.) Gail didn’t flinch at the blatant intimidation efforts. The NWA never quit and eventually succeeded in defeating the water-for-profit project.
Gail went on to become a founding member of the N.H. Community Rights Network (NHCRN) with a mission to educate and empower every community about our collective power of local self-governance. She championed community governing autonomy as a way to secure and protect the inherent and unalienable rights of all inhabitants of New Hampshire to economic, social and environmental justice, including the rights of nature. Through NHCRN, Gail worked to secure the larger goal of securing a right of community self-governance through a state constitutional amendment so as to level the playing field between community members and corporate actors seeking to exploit local residents and natural environments for profit.
“Our community of Nottingham, N.H. recently lost a mover and a shaker,” says Sandi Dow, another member of the NWA. “Gail Mills was a warm, witty and rather wise warrior actually. She cared deeply about those things she devoted her time and attention to. With help from many other townspeople including her husband Chris, along with organizations such as the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and Save our Groundwater, Gail spear-headed the 2008 effort to keep USA Springs, LLC from extracting and selling off the only water supply available to residents and surrounding communities.
“Gail led our Water Rights initiative that ended USA Spring’s dreams before a drop of water was lost,” continues Dow. “Eventually, the Town was able to take back the land. Now, with a new business park proposed for the site, I hope that the developer will be as good a steward of the land as Gail Mills was and that all of us will remember what an incredible gift she helped preserve for us all!”
You can read more about Gail’s legacy in Nottingham in the newly published NHCRN booklet, “How To Protect Your Community—Enact Local Democracy Now!” The booklet can be received for a small donation of $5 by contacting the NHCRN, or it also available as a free download from the website at www.nhcommunityrights.org.
Michelle Sanborn (she), NHCRN President, www.nhcommunityrights.org
It is sad, indeed, to learn of this loss, for Nottingham, for the State, and—given the nature of inter-dependence, and the interdependence of nature—for the world.
The dogged defense of Nottingham’s water against USA Springs was inspiring even before it achieved its goal. Anyone who uses water—which is to say, all of us—should remember that it led to victory.